Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist and team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya dominated today's opening leg of the Acropolis Rally to hold first and second positions in their Ford Focus World Rally Cars. On a day when Greece's ...
Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist and team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya dominated today's opening leg of the Acropolis Rally to hold first and second positions in their Ford Focus World Rally Cars. On a day when Greece's notoriously rough gravel mountain roads took a fearful toll on many of the frontrunners, Ford drivers won four of the five speed tests as McRae opened up a 38.5 second lead over Sainz.
The 31-year-old Scot scored three fastest stage times while Petter Solberg and Phil Mills, driving a third Ford-entered Focus World Rally Car, posted another fastest time. To complete a superb day for the manufacturer Ulsterman Stephen Finlay and co-driver Rory Kennedy, driving a privately-entered Focus, proved more than a match for most of their professional rivals by ending the leg in sixth.
After this morning's traditional start to this seventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship at the Parthenon high above Athens, the Ford drivers were soon into their stride over the boulder-strewn tracks which make this event Europe's toughest championship round. In temperatures climbing above 35°C, McRae and Grist took a firm grip by setting fastest time on the second and third stages to take a lead they were not to lose.
"The day has gone perfectly," said McRae. "We had two punctures this morning but that's inevitable on this rally because there's only so many rocks you can avoid. Michelin's ATS mousse worked well and we lost no time. I'm driving fast where I can but on the rough sections I'm just picking my way round the rocks. I've never known such a dramatic opening day in Greece. You always expect one or two teams to hit problems but it seems that everyone apart from us has been in the wars today."
Sainz and Moya settled in behind their team-mates, consistent times enabling the Spaniards to pull out a 34.4 second advantage over third-placed Francois Delecour. Only intense in-car temperatures and a minor problem with his car's dashboard display caused any consternation for the 38-year-old Madrid driver.
"This year the rules say we must wear full racing overalls in the car, rather than T-shirts and that makes it incredibly hot," said Sainz. "It really is unpleasant but there's nothing we can do except ensure we take on plenty of fluid. Second for us and Colin's lead adds up to a good day for the team. We dropped a little time to Colin on the final two tests but we're still well ahead of the other drivers. It will be difficult to be second on the road tomorrow because the stages will be covered in loose gravel but we'll have a slight advantage over Colin who will be ahead of us," he added.
Solberg and Mills, competing on the rally for the first time, set sensational times. They were only once outside the top five times all day and were third overall until an unfortunate incident on the third stage cost eight minutes.
"We hit a little bump before a corner and ran wide. Two wheels slipped into a ditch and the car just beached on a small gravel bank in the ditch. It was undamaged and although there were many spectators, only four of them would help us. I literally begged the others to assist but they wouldn't," said Solberg. However, the 25-year-old Norwegian was happy to be still in the rally. He lies 27th.
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson wore a big smile. "I'm delighted with first and second, especially with four fastest times from five stages. We've had no major problems with Colin and Carlos' cars and it's just routine service this evening. We're apprehensive about running first on the road tomorrow but our lead over the opposition is so great there was no question of any tactics. It was disappointing for Petter to go off the road but I'm very pleased with his performance. The important thing is he's still going, gaining experience and testing parts for the team."
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The opening day proved one of the most dramatic for some time. Five manufacturer cars retired and many more hit serious problems. Tommi Mäkinen and Freddy Loix (both Mitsubishi) were each sidelined, Mäkinen retiring after stage four while Loix abandoned after the opening stage, both with broken hub shafts. Kenneth Eriksson and Alister McRae (both Hyundai) are out, the Swede retiring with engine failure and McRae exceeding his time allowance after a problem-filled day. Luis Climent (Skoda) was the other retirement having ripped off a front left wheel in stage three. Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) dropped five minutes after rolling and losing a wheel in the same test, collecting extra penalties as mechanics worked furiously to make repairs in service. Toni Gardemeister (Seat) completed the first three stages with no power steering, losing almost seven minutes, while team-mate Didier Auriol twice broke his steering. Richard Burns (Subaru) struggled by being first car through the stages and also endured brake problems on the final test while team-mate Juha Kankkunen had a small fire on the same stage when his car's oil cooler split.
The second leg, based north of Itea in the foothills of Mount Parnassos and Mount Kallidromo, is the hardest of the three-day rally. Drivers face almost 160km of stages, nearly double the length of today's action. After leaving Itea at 07.30, they tackle seven tests, the two stages at the beginning of the day being repeated at the end. They return to Itea for the final overnight halt at 19.43.
Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus 1hr 04min 09.6sec 2. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus 1hr 04min 48.1sec 3. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Peugeot 206 1hr 05min 22.5sec 4. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Subaru Impreza 1hr 06min 10.4sec 5. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 1hr 06min 18.5sec 6. S Finlay/R Kennedy GB Ford Focus 1hr 07min 36.2sec 7. T Arai/R Freeman J Subaru Impreza 1hr 07min 39.6sec 8. A Bakhashab/B Willis SA Toyota Corolla 1hr 08min 10.0sec 9. A Schwarz/M Hiemer D Skoda Octavia 1hr 08min 13.8sec 10 J Papadimitriou/N Petropoulos GR Subaru Impteza 1hr 08min 31.8sec